I admit it. I was looking forward to picking and betting on Charge It in the Grade I, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, which will be run this Saturday (Aug. 27) at Saratoga.
But then the news came that Charge It will not be running in the 1 1/4-mile Midsummer Derby due to a right front foot abscess. He would have gone into the Travers off a 23-length tour de force in Belmont Park’s Grade III Dwyer Stakes. That performance produced a glittering 111 Beyer Speed Figure, highest by a 3-year-old male or female so far in 2022.
With Charge It forced to miss the Travers, Epicenter becomes my top pick. In his most recent appearance under silks, Epicenter rallied from last in a field of four to win Saratoga’s Grade I Jim Dandy Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths at 1 1/8 miles on July 30.
Do I have the enthusiasm for Epicenter in the Travers that I did for Charge It? No. Why? My primary concern is Epicenter has yet to record a Beyer Speed Figure higher than a 102.
Based on recent history, I think there is a pretty good chance that it will require something bigger than a 102 to win the Travers.
The Travers winner has posted a Beyer of 104 or higher in the last seven years.
Below are Beyer Speed Figures for Travers winners going back to 1990 (the first year they were listed in the American Racing Manual):
2021 Essential Quality (107)
2020 Tiz the Law (109)
2019 Code of Honor (105)
2018 Catholic Boy (104)
2017 West Coast (108)
2016 Arrogate (122)
2015 Keen Ice (106)
2014 V.E. Day (102)
2013 Will Take Charge (107)
2012 Alpha (100)*
2012 Golden Ticket (100)*
2011 Stay Thirsty (101)
2010 Afleet Express (105)
2009 Summer Bird (110)
2008 Colonel John (106)
2007 Street Sense (108)
2006 Bernardini (116)
2005 Flower Alley (110)
2004 Birdstone (108)
2003 Ten Most Wanted (112)
2002 Medaglia d’Oro (113)
2001 Point Given (117)
2000 Unshaded (109)
1999 Lemon Drop Kid (110)
1998 Coronado’s Quest (107)
1997 Deputy Commander (110)
1996 Will’s Way (114)
1995 Thunder Gulch (110)
1994 Holy Bull (115)
1993 Sea Hero (109)
1992 Thunder Rumble (109)
1991 Corporate Report (109)
1990 Rhythm (104)
WHY PICK EPICENTER?
I am going ahead and making Epicenter my top choice in the Travers because I now see him as the most likely winner without Charge It in the race. But Epicenter’s lack of a Beyer higher than 102 indicates to me that he is far from a slam-dunk, which is why I’m not interested in putting any money on him at low odds. He has been pegged as the 7-5 favorite on colleague David Aragona’s Travers morning line.
Ever since Epicenter’s stakes debut in the Gun Runner late last year, he has looked like he is one of the better colts in his crop. He won the Gun Runner by 6 1/2 lengths.
After the Gun Runner, Epicenter ran second in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes in January, won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes in February, won the Grade II Louisiana Derby in March, then finished second in both the Grade I Kentucky Derby and Grade I Preakness Stakes during May.
Epicenter is my choice to win the Travers not so much because his 2022 form has been quite good, but because his Jim Dandy suggests to me that he just might be maturing into a tiger for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. If this supposition proves to be true, the Kentucky-bred Not This Time colt then might well take his Beyer game to a higher level in the Travers.
WHO HAS THE TOP FIG IN THE TRAVERS FIELD?
With Charge It and his 111 Beyer missing from the Travers cast, the top figure among the eight combatants belongs to Early Voting, who registered a 105 when he won the Grade I Preakness Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths at Pimlico on May 21. Epicenter finished second.
“Why,” you might be wondering, “aren’t you picking Early Voting to win the Travers when he boasts the highest Beyer in the field and he beat Epicenter in Baltimore?” That’s a fair question. I just find it hard to go with Early Voting in the Travers off what I saw in the Jim Dandy.
Despite being allowed to set an uncontested pace in the Jim Dandy, Early Voting weakened when the real test came and finished last in the field of four, 3 3/4 lengths behind Epicenter.
Can Early Voting win his rubber match with Epicenter this Saturday? Sure, it’s possible if the same Early Voting of the Preakness shows up in the Travers. But like I said, after what happened in the Jim Dandy, I will be somewhat surprised if Early Voting beats Epicenter in the Travers.
On the other hand, while Early Voting’s 105 is the top Beyer Speed Figure in the Travers field, he is listed at 8-1 on the morning line. How often in any race do you get odds that high on a horse who boasts the best Beyer?
Would I like Early Voting in the Travers at around 4-1? No. But if Aragona is right and Early Voting’s price ends up being around 8-1, I might find the temptation too hard to resist and put a few dollars on him strictly from a value standpoint, even though I consider Epicenter to be the most likely winner. I will be monitoring how the betting goes on Epicenter very closely.
I think the chief threat to Epicenter is Cyberknife, who comes off a narrow victory in Monmouth Park’s Grade I Haskell Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on July 23. Cyberknife edged the talented Taiba, who earlier this year in a remarkable feat, managed to win the Grade I Santa Anita Derby with only a single race under his belt. Taiba, gearing up for the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 24, worked six furlongs in a bullet 1:10 4/5 at Del Mar last Saturday for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Trainer Brad Cox saw early on that Cyberknife has much ability. But the Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt was something of a goof-off in his early races. I think what could bode well for Cyberknife in the Travers is it appears that he has made progress mentally to become a more serious racehorse since he finished way up the track in the Grade I Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 7. It seems that the upside that many -- including Cox -- believed that Cyberknife had during the first half of the year is now being realized.
When Cyberknife won the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes by a nose at Churchill on June 12, he raced more professionally than he had previously. His Haskell was even better.
I think it’s crystal clear that Cyberknife merits considerable respect in the Travers. He’s the lone multiple Grade I winner in the field, plus his Beyer Speed Figure pattern points him out as a major player. After recording a career-best 94 Beyer in the Winn, Cyberknife took a healthy leap all the way up to a 102 in the Haskell. As noted earlier, 102 has been Epicenter’s Beyer ceiling to this point.
I was very tempted to make Cyberknife my top pick in the Travers, especially since his odds figure to be better than Epicenter’s. But when push came to shove, I opted to go with Epicenter for the reasons mentioned earlier.
My selections for the Travers Stakes are below:
1. Epicenter (7-5 morning-line favorite)
2. Cyberknife (7-2)
3. Zandon (5-1)
4. Early Voting (8-1)
Will I be surprised if Zandon wins the Travers? Absolutely not (which is another reason I won’t be betting Epicenter).
Zandon was highly regarded by the Chad Brown barn prior to winning a six-furlong maiden sprint at first asking at the 2001 Belmont Park fall meet. After earning his maiden diploma, Zandon lost the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in early December by a scant nose to Mo Donegal (who probably should have been disqualified for causing interference). Mo Donegal would go on to win the Grade I Belmont Stakes.
The main reason I’m not picking Zandon to win the Travers is simple. He’s been outrun by Epicenter all three times that they have met.
Zandon finished third when Epicenter won the Risen Star. After Zandon’s sparkling 2 1/2-length victory in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, he finished third to Rich Strike and Epicenter in the Kentucky Derby.
And then Zandon ran second in the Jim Dandy when beaten again by Epicenter.
What about Rich Strike? It looks like he has trained in fine fashion leading up to the Travers. Rich Strike is 10-1 on the morning line. Can he win Saturday? Put me in the skeptical camp.
Rich Strike likewise appeared to have trained in fine fashion going into the Belmont, which was one of the reasons I made him my top pick for the 1 1/2-mile classic. I thought the striking chestnut colt’s shocking Kentucky Derby victory at 80-1 (second-biggest upset in the race’s long history) was not the fluke many perceived it to be.
But Rich Strike never threatened in the Belmont, finishing sixth, 13 1/4 lengths behind Mo Donegal. After he let me down like he did on that occasion, I am not about to support him in the Travers. If he wins, so be it.
I might regret not including Artorius somewhere in my 1-2-3-4 Travers picks. The improving colt got much more respect on the Travers morning line at 9-2 than Preakness winner Early Voting’s 8-1.
After finishing second when unveiled in a six-furlong Keeneland maiden race on April 16, Artorius graduated from the maiden ranks in a one-mile race at Belmont on June 10. He then won Saratoga’s 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes by 4 3/4 lengths on July 29.
Artorious sports an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern of 83, then 91, then 95.
Arrogate, Artorious’ sire, was nothing less than awesome when he won the 2016 Travers for Baffert. In my recap of that race for Xpressbet.com, I called it “a Secretariat-like performance.”
Arrogate’s final Travers time was 1:59.36. That translates to 1:59 1/5 in fifths, which sliced four-fifths of a second off Saratoga’s 1 1/4-mile track record set by General Assembly (a son of Secretariat) when he won Travers by 15 lengths on a sloppy track in 1979. Secretariat won the 1973 Kentucky Derby in 1:59 2/5, which remains the fastest final time in the Run for the Roses.
I listed Arrogate’s Travers as the top performance of 2016 by a Thoroughbred in the United States in my annual year-end rankings for Xpressbet.com.
“Taking into account his winning margin of 13 1/2 lengths, final time of 1:59 1/5, final quarter-mile clocking of :23 4/5 and the lack of any prior stakes experience, it is my view that Arrogate’s victory in the Travers was the top 2016 performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States,” I wrote.
DOMINANT STAKES WINS BY 3-YEAR-OLD FILLIES
There were three truly outstanding victorious performances by 3-year-old fillies on the North American racing stage last weekend, from Saratoga to Del Mar to Woodbine.
--NEST in Saratoga’s Grade I Alabama Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on dirt.
Putting a stranglehold on a potential 2022 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly that will be almost impossible to snatch away, Nest was much the best in the 1 1/4-mile event as a heavy favorite just under 2-5 despite an awkward beginning.
Close up in the early furlongs, she poked her head in front midway on the far turn, drew out to lead by four lengths with a furlong to go and went on to win by 4 1/4 lengths.
Nest thus won her rubber match with Secret Oath.
Secret Oath won the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 6 by two lengths. Nest finished second.
Nest turned the tables by winning Saratoga’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks in isolated splendor by 12 1/4 lengths. Secret Oath was the distant runner-up.
Now the head-to-head score is Nest 2, Secret Oath 1 following the Alabama.
In between the Kentucky Oaks and CCA Oaks, Nest gave a good account of herself against the boys by finishing second to Mo Donegal in the Belmont.
Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Nest was credited with a 99 Beyer Speed Figure for her Alabama victory.
--SPENDARELLA in the Grade I Del Mar Oaks at 1 1/8 miles on turf.
I was rather amused by those willing to go against Spendarella in this race.
Bellabel looked good winning Del Mar’s Grade II San Clemente Stakes by two lengths on July 23. There were those who felt this gave her something of a “home field advantage” over Spendarella.
Cairo Memories was cutting back to 1 1/8 miles after weakening in the stretch and finishing fifth in the Grade I Belmont Oaks at 1 1/4 miles on July 9. Furthermore, not only did she win a one-mile maiden race on Del Mar’s grass course at the 2021 summer meet, she only lost by 2 3/4 lengths when ninth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar in the fall. Those two races gave her experience on Del Mar’s grass course that Splendarella did not have.
There also were those who expressed the thought Spendarella might be vulnerable because she had traveled from America to England, back to America, then from the East Coast to California for the Del Mar Oaks.
Others wanted to see Spendarella prove that she could succeed when racing farther than 1 1/16 miles for the first time.
I felt that Spendarella was a complete standout from a class standpoint. I don’t think any 3-year-old filly has ever -- I repeat, ever -- brought as strong of form into a Del Mar Oaks than Spendarella.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, Spendarella won two grass races at Gulfstream Park early this year, including the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes, prior to her victory in Keeneland’s Grade II Appalachian Stakes on April 9. She won those three races by 2 3/4, 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 lengths.
And then Spendarella was sent to Royal Ascot to give the Group I Coronation Stakes a try on June 17. No, she didn’t win. But man, she ran a heckuva race in defeat.
Inspiral, undefeated in four European starts last year for trainers John and Thady Gosden, trounced her dozen Coronation opponents. She won by 4 3/4 lengths.
Spendarella finished a respectable second while managing to defeat a number of quality runners.
Consider the strength of the Coronation in terms of producing future Grade I victories.
While Inspiral was upset in her next start when second in a Group I race at Newmarket on July 8, she won a Group I race at Deauville on Aug. 14 against older males. That’s right. She beat older males at the Group I level in France.
Tenebrism ran fourth in the Coronation. In her next start, she won a Group I race against 3-year-old colts on July 10. That’s right. She beat colts at the Group I level in France. After that, Tenebrism finished second against older females in a Group I event at Deauville on Aug. 2.
Prosperous Voyage finished 10th in the Coronation. In her next start, she won a Group I race in England against 3-year-old fillies at Newmarket on July 8.
After finishing 11th in the Coronation, Grande Dame was a next-out winner in England’s Coral Distaff Stakes at Sandown Park on July 2.
Also among the vanquished in the Coronation was Pizza Bianca, who ran eighth. She won last year’s Grade I BC Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar.
How often have you heard someone talk about the power of Europe’s better grass runners vs. America’s? It’s true. Yet, surprisingly to me, there were so many eager to try and beat a filly in the Del Mar Oaks who had held her own against the elite of Europe’s 3-year-old grass fillies.
Well, Spendarella not only was a standout on paper, as I saw it, she was a standout on SoCal turf. Receiving an exquisite ride by Tyler Gaffalione, Spendarella stalked in third early, took command coming into the stretch and bounded home an emphatic 4 1/2-length winner.
To put Spendarella’s domination into perspective, it was one of the largest winning margins in the history of the Del Mar Oaks, which was first run in 1957. The betting favorite made 6-5 look like a gift.
I thought those concerned that Spendarella had done too much traveling going into the Del Mar were not placing enough trust in trainer Graham Motion. If all the shipping had taken too much of a toll on the filly, I don’t think Motion would have sent her to Del Mar. I also think those worried about Spendarella’s frequent flier miles were not taking into account how much success Motion has had when sending horses to Southern California for stakes races. Yet another example of that occurred the day before the Del Mar Oaks when Motion shipper Sister Otoole won Del Mar’s CTT and TOC Stakes.
Bellabel ran very well in the Del Mar Oaks, but she finished second when no match for Spendarella. Cairo Memories gave it her best and didn’t disgrace herself, but she had to settle for third.
Spendarella completed her 1 1/8-mile journey in 1:47.09. Though she received a 91 Beyer Speed Figure (I thought it might be higher), keep in mind that this was the third-fastest final time in the Del Mar Oaks from 2013 to the present. The only better final clockings during this period were Sharla Rae’s 1:46.58 in 2015 and Cambier Parc’s 1:46.75 in 2019.
--MOIRA in Woodbine’s historic Queen’s Plate at 1 1/4 miles on a synthetic surface.
To be sure, this was a “wow” performance.
Ninth early in the field of 11, Moira made a sensational move on the far turn, blowing past the boys like they were standing still until only The Minkster and Ironstone were left to overtake. It was the kind of furious far-turn rally that has carried many a 3-year-old to victory in another 1 1/4-mile race for 3-year-olds called the Kentucky Derby.
Robert Geller, who called many a Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs prior to taking over as the track announcer at Woodbine in 2015, once again described the action in this year’s Queen’s Plate. Let’s pick up Geller’s excellent call as the Canadian-breds turned for home: “As they come down to the final quarter in the Queen’s Plate, The Minkster, Ironstone, and here comes the filly, Moira, and she’s exploding down the outside, and in the blink of an eye, has raced to the front. And it’s Moira out in the lead two lengths. Racing home is Hall of Dreams down the outside. But the mighty filly has devastated them! And the 163rd Queen’s Plate is a big win for Moira. She is stunning, wins [by] six lengths!”
Geller’s estimation of six lengths was close. For the record, Moira’s official margin was seven lengths. Her final time of 2:01.48 also broke the track record on Woodbine’s main track for a 1 1/4-mile race run on the synthetic footing. Woodine switched from dirt to a synthetic main track in 2006.
It was particularly meaningful for Kevin Attard, a longtime Woodbine trainer, to win Canada’s most coveted prize for the first time.
Moira was facing male foes for the first time in the Queen’s Plate. She went into the Queen’s Plate off a resounding 10 3/4-length victory in the Woodbine Oaks.
Ghostzapper, the Eclipse Award-winning 2004 Horse of the Year, is the sire of Moira, who now has won four of five lifetime starts. The lone blemish on Moira’s record came when she finished a fast-closing second in Woodbine’s Grade III Mazarine Stakes on Nov. 28 in her second and final start at 2.
Attard ascribes Moira’s loss in the Mazarine to what he describes as very poor weather conditions that day that the track probably got a little too deep for her and wasn’t to her liking.
Rafael Hernandez had been aboard Moira when she romped in the Woodbine Oaks and also rode Rondure won he won Woodbine’s Grade III Marine Stakes with authority by 5 1/2 lengths on Aug. 2.
Hernandez opted to stick with the filly in the Queen’s Plate. Needing a pilot for Rondure, Katerina Vassilieva brought Flavien Prat in from Saratoga.
After Moira was the 6-5 to 7-5 favorite for much of the Queen’s Plate wagering, a boatload of late money (something that happens way too often these days) came in on Rondure. That resulted in Rondure being sent away as the 3-2 betting choice. Moira’s odds floated up to 9-5. She certainly made that look like a very generous price.
Moira recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 71 and 74 twice in her first three races, then ascended substantially to a 92 in the Woodbine Oaks. She received a career-best 97 Beyer for her Queen’s Plate triumph.
The Queen’s Plate is the first leg in the Canadian Triple Crown. Attard told Daily Racing Form’s Ron Gierkink that Moira is unlikely to run in the second leg, the Prince of Wales Stakes, which will be contested at Fort Erie on Sept. 13.
“Attard said Moira’s connections want a Grade I victory for the daughter of Ghostzapper,” Gierkink wrote. “The Grade I Cotillion on the dirt on Sept. 24 at Parx Racing is a possibility, along with the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on the turf Oct. 15 at Keeneland.”
And so it is that the possibility exists that two of the three impressive 3-year-old filly stakes winners last weekend, Moira and Spendarella, could meet in the QE II. Motion has indicated that probably will be the next race for Spendarella.
THERE ALMOST WAS NO SPENDARELLA
Bellabel would have won the 2022 Del Mar Oaks if a shake in a 1996 claiming race at Hollywood Park had turned out differently. That’s because Spendarella would not exist.
Spendarella’s dam is the Unusual Heat mare Spanish Bunny. Spanish Bunny won only once in 20 career starts, but she now is the dam of two Grade I winners. In addition to producing Spendarella, Spanish Bunny is the dam of Spanish Queen (by Tribal Rule), who won the Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita in 2015.
In 1996, Barry Abrams made one of the most significant claims in the history of California racing and breeding. He filled out a claim slip for Unusual Heat.
Many years ago, Abrams told me that prior to claiming Unusual Heat, he spent a considerable amount of time researching the horse’s pedigree in the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s library located across the street from Santa Anita Park. Abrams liked what he found. The main reason behind claiming Unusual Heat was to stand him at stud in California.
A son of the accomplished racehorse and influential sire Nureyev, Unusual Heat was bred in Kentucky. He was sent to Europe after selling for $250,000 at the 1992 Barretts March 2-year-old sale. Unusual Heat won four of 10 starts and was a multiple stakes winner in Ireland prior to returning to the United States.
After Unusual Heat lost his first three starts in California for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, he competed in an $80,000 claiming race at Hollywood Park on June 10, 1996. Abrams won a two-way shake for the 6-year-old horse. The new owners were Abrams and his brother, David, plus James Auerbach, Andy Hillas’ Team Green and Russell Wolkoff.
Unusual Heat raced just twice after joining Abrams’ barn.
Only six days after being claimed, Unusual Heat started in Hollywood Park’s Grade I Shoemaker Mile. He finished sixth behind the victorious Fastness. Running a horse back in six days or even quicker was not unusual for Abrams.
Considering Abrams’ main interest in claiming Unusual Heat was as a stallion prospect, you might be surprised that Unusual Heat was risked in a claiming race 13 days following the Shoemaker Mile. But it really was not that much of a risk that Abrams and his partners would have Unusual Heat claimed off them. That’s because the claiming price was $125,000. Unusual Heat did win that race as an 11-10 favorite, but he “returned lame,” according to the race chart.
Retired to stud, Unusual Heat would go on to become probably the most successful sire to ever stand in California.
Back in the day, I was shooting the breeze one afternoon between races at Santa Anita with trainer Mike Mitchell when Unusual Heat’s name came up.
“You know, I’m the one Barry outshook for Unusual Heat,” said Mitchell.
“Really?” I said.
“And it’s a good thing Barry won that shake,” Mitchell continued.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because I would’ve gelded him and dropped him in class,” Mitchell said, laughing heartily.
I later mentioned this to Abrams, long after Unusual Heat had become a huge success as a sire.
“Mike tells me that all the time,” Abrams said with a big grin.
If Unusual Heat had been gelded instead of going to stud, to say it would have been an enormous loss to California racing and breeding would be an understatement. To cite just one example, Spanish Bunny never would have been born, which means Spendarella never would have been born.
Unusual Heat was California’s leading sire in progeny earnings for six straight years from 2008 through 2013. At the time of his death in 2017, he was the state’s all-time leading sire by total progeny earnings with more than $54.4 million.
Thank goodness Abrams outshook Mitchell for Unusual Heat.
Mike Mitchell died of brain cancer on April 14, 2015.
Unusual Heat died of complications from arthritis-induced laminitis on May 17, 2017.
Barry Abrams died of throat cancer on Oct. 9, 2020.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
The Top 10 is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 309 Life Is Good (19)
2. 301 Flightline (13)
3. 261 Jackie’s Warrior
4. 194 Nest
5. 145 Epicenter (1)
6. 140 Clairiere
7. 114 Country Grammer
8. 93 Olympiad
9. 35 Regal Glory
10. 31 Hot Rod Charlie
LONGINES BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC RANKINGS
The Top 10 is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 330 Flightline (26)
2. 298 Life Is Good (5)
3. 217 Country Grammer (1)
4. 209 Epicenter (2)
5. 152 Hot Rod Charlie
6. 132 Olympiad
7. 94 Happy Saver
8. 83 Cyberknife
9. 80 Royal Ship
10. 47 Nest